Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Gadhafi CIA Psycho Profile

Libya’s leader Muammar Gaddafi. A CIA report says that the dictator, while usually rational, is prone to delusional thinking when under pressure.

By BENEDICT CAREY © 2011 New York Times News Service

Posted Friday, April 22 2011 at 22:00

American analysts have compiled psychological assessments of hostile leaders like Gaddafi, Kim Jong Il of North Korea and Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez

He is a delusional narcissist who will fight until his last breath. Or an impulsive showman who will hop into the next flight out of town when cornered. Or maybe he’s a psychopath, a coldly calculating strategist — crazy, like a desert fox.

The endgame in Libya is likely to turn in large part on the instincts of Muammar Gaddafi, and any insight into those instincts would be enormously valuable to policymakers. Journalists have formed their impressions from anecdotes, or from his actions in the past; others have seized on his recent tirades about al-Qaeda and President Barack Obama.

But at least one group has tried to construct a profile based on scientific methods, and its conclusions are the ones most likely to affect US policy.

For decades, analysts at CIA and the Department of Defence have compiled psychological assessments of hostile leaders like Gaddafi, Kim Jong Il of North Korea and President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, as well as allies, potential successors and other prominent officials. (Many other governments do the same, of course.)

Diplomats, military strategists and even presidents have drawn on those profiles to inform their decisions – in some cases to their benefit, in other cases at a cost.

The political profile “is perhaps most important in cases where you have a leader who dominates the society, who can act virtually without constraint,” said Dr Jerrold Post, a psychiatrist who directs the political psychology programme at George Washington University and founded the CIA branch that does behavioural analysis. “And that has been the case here, with Gaddafi and Libya.”

At-a-distance profiling

The official dossiers are classified. But the methods are well known. Civilian psychologists have developed many of the techniques, drawing mostly on public information about a given leader: speeches, writings, biographical facts, observable behaviour.

The resulting forecasts suggest that “at-a-distance profiling,” as it is known, is still more an art than a science. So in a crisis like the one in Libya, it is crucial to know the assessments’ potential value and real limitations.

“Expert profilers are better at predicting behaviour than a blindfolded chimpanzee, all right, but the difference is not as large as you’d hope it would be,” said Philip Tetlock, a psychologist at the Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania, and the author of Expert Political Judgment: How Good Is It? How Can We Know? (Princeton University, 2006), who has done profiling of his own. “There’s no secret sauce, and my impression is that often the process can be rushed,” as a leader suddenly becomes a person of intense interest.

The method with the longest track record is modelled on clinical case studies, the psychobiographies that therapists create when making a diagnosis, citing influences going back to the sandbox.

The first one on record, commissioned in the early 1940s by the Office of Strategic Services, the predecessor to the CIA, was of Adolf Hitler; in it, the Harvard personality specialist Henry A. Murray speculated freely and luridly about Hitler’s “infinite self-abasement,” “homosexual panic” and Oedipal tendencies.

Clinical-case approach

Analysts still use this clinical-case approach but now ground it far more firmly in biographical facts than on Freudian speculation or personal opinion.

In a profile of Gaddafi for Foreign Policy magazine, Post concludes that the dictator, while usually rational, is prone to delusional thinking when under pressure – “and right now, he is under the most stress he has been under since taking over the leadership of Libya.”

At his core, Gaddafi sees himself as the ultimate outsider, the Muslim warrior fighting impossible odds, Post argues, and he “is indeed prepared to go down in flames.”

Characterisations of this type have been invaluable in the past. In preparation for the Camp David peace negotiations between Israel and Egypt, the CIA provided President Jimmy Carter with profiles of both nations’ leaders, Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat. In his memoirs Keeping Faith, Carter credited the profiles with giving him crucial insights that helped close a peace deal.

The brief on the Egyptian president, “Sadat’s Nobel Prize Complex,” noted that Sadat “sees himself as a grand strategist and will make tactical concessions if he is persuaded his overall goals will be achieved,” and added, “His self-confidence has permitted him to make bold initiatives, often overriding his advisers’ objections.”

Yet the assessments can also be misleading, even embarrassing. Profiles of President Saddam Hussein of Iraq that circulated in the early 1990s suggested that he was ultimately a pragmatist who would give in under pressure.

And in 1993, the CIA reportedly provided lawmakers with a brief alleging that the Haitian leader Jean-Bertrand Aristide had a history of mental illness, including manic depression. Aristide furiously denied it, and the report was soon discredited.

In a 1994 review of the episode in Foreign Policy, Thomas Omestad wrote that the profile was “light on facts and heavy on speculation; it came closer to character assassination than character analysis.”

Intelligence specialists have learned to hedge their bets over the years, supplementing case histories with “content analysis” techniques, which look for patterns in a leader’s comments or writings.

For instance, a software programme developed by Margaret Hermann, a researcher at Syracuse University, evaluates the relative frequency of certain categories of words (like “I,” “me,” “mine”) in interviews, speeches and other sources and links the scores to leadership traits.

Wipe them out

A technique used by David G. Winter, a professor of psychology at the University of Michigan, draws on similar sources to judge leaders’ motives, in particular their need for power, achievement and affiliation.

The sentence “We can certainly wipe them out” reflects a high power orientation; the comment “After dinner, we sat around chatting and laughing together” rings of affiliation.

“Combine high power and high affiliation, the person is likely to reach out, whereas power and low affiliation tend to predict aggression,” said Winter, who has profiled Presidents Richard M. Nixon and Bill Clinton, among many others. “That’s the idea, though of course you can’t predict anything with certainty.”

At least one group of political profilers has incorporated that flaw itself – uncertainty – into its forecasts. Peter Suedfeld, a psychologist at the University of British Columbia who has worked with Tetlock, sifts through a leader’s words to rate a quality called integrative complexity. This is a measure of how certain people are, how confident in their judgments, whether they have considered any opposing points of view.

In a series of studies, the researchers have compared communications leading up to the outbreaks of World War I and the Korean War with those that led to a peaceful resolution, like the 1962 Cuban missile crisis.

And the higher the level of acknowledged uncertainty, the less likely the leader is to pursue war, Suedfeld said. He has not yet analysed Gaddafi’s comments, but it doesn’t take an expert to observe that the Libyan leader sounds very certain, if not always coherent.

What is missing amid all this number crunching and modelling is any sense of which methods are most useful when. In an exhaustive review of intelligence analysis published in recent weeks, a prominent panel of social scientists strongly agreed: Psychological profiling and other methods intelligence analysts use to predict behaviour are sorely in need of rigorous testing.

And new ideas. In an unusual move, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, which commissioned the report, has sponsored a kind of competition (, inviting people to test their own forecasting techniques, to improve intelligence analysis.

Given the challenge of predicting what leaders like Gaddafi might do, think of it as a plea for help.

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